Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Oh, about Scotland

While I'm here, there is one thing about the Scottish referendum that has been properly bugging me. Rachel Sylvester's article in the Times today is more or less a perfect illustration of it, while Polly Toynbee gives another cracking example. That thing is the idea that, if Scotland votes Yes to independence on Thursday, this will be all David Cameron's fault. For extra points, Sylvester accuses Cameron of arrogantly ignoring the wisdom of women:
The prime minister’s naive short-termism and arrogant refusal to listen to women will come back to haunt him


This is because he didn't listen to complaints that the No campaign sounds "like a man whose wife is leaving him, but instead of trying to win her back by talking about all the wonderful things they have done together, and telling her how much he loves her, he is shouting about how she won’t get any money or see the children if they get divorced.” Well, here's the thing. David Cameron doesn't run the No campaign. He doesn't run it because it was agreed by all Unionist players that an English Tory Prime Minister wasn't the best choice to persuade a country that returned one Tory MP in 2010 that independence was a bad idea.
 
Equally, the idea that:
Although Labour must share some of the responsibility, it is the prime minister who should shoulder most of the blame. It was he who caved in to the SNP leader over the date of the referendum, giving the independence cause time to build momentum, and it was he who refused to include a third compromise option on the ballot paper, offering the “devo-max” option that he has now been forced to concede.
Is mostly nonsense too. After the SNP won a majority in 2011, a referendum was inevitable. The timing of it was fairly irrelevant - as demonstrated by the fact that the polls only started to move as the actual date approached. ANd the idea that there ought to have been 3 options on the paper is ridiculous - what would have happened if the results had been 35% Yes, 34% No, and 31% Devo Max? Independence?

And why should the Prime Minister shoulder the blame for the conduct of a campaign led by Labour? The principal faces of the No campaign (Darling, Murphy, Brown) are Labour, the grassroots campaigners were supposed to be recruited by Labour - the party with the most to lose from independence is Labour. Cameron has done his bit (and his speeches are among the few memorable ones from the No camp) but ultimately he has had to take a back seat in this. Blaming him for this now is a smokescreen to hide the real culprits.

This is rubbish too:

Even if there’s a ‘no’ vote, Cameron has ended up giving away the keys to the kingdom on the basis of one opinion poll,” says a senior backbencher. “That is just wrong. The whole attitude has been ‘let’s get through today and worry about the details later’.”
I'm guessing this "senior backbencher" hasn't bothered reading the Strathclyde Commission Report, or realised that the Tories pledged precisely the further devolution that is being decried as last-minute and panicky back in June following the Report's publication. Fiscal devolution is a quintessentially Conservative position, and was already part of manifesto plans.

Christ, but the childish lack of discipline from the Tory back benches annoys me.

Scotland for Aye?

I must admit that I'd assumed from the moment the Independence referendum was announced that No would win, and by a reasonably comfortable margin. Once you got past the emotional appeal of "Freedom!", there just didn't seem to be a convincing enough answer to why Scotland should leave the UK. As the campaign progressed, and the Yes campaign's position became one where, post independence, Scotland would have the Queen as head of state, would use the pound in a full currency union with the UK, would have no border policy, would remain an EU member state, and would have full access to the BBC it seemed increasingly hard to see what the point of independence was.
 
I then rather assumed that the total and abject failure of the Yes campaign to answer the question over how the currency would work (or at least answer it honestly) would be enough to sink Yes on its own. I am not, as I may have mentioned before, an economist, but even I can work out why a formal currency union isn't on offer - there's literally nothing in it for the UK. If it were to be even vaguely acceptable to UK politicians, the fiscal strings that would be attached would be simply incompatible with independence - Scottish fiscal freedom would actually be curtailed as a result of independence.

And yet this doesn't seem even to have dented the Yes bandwagon - when asked about it, Salmond either ignores the question, or seizes on comments by Alastair Darling that "of course Scotland could use the pound" without mentioning that he followed this up by saying "we could use the ruble, we could use the dollar, we could use the yen. We could use anything we want." The independence referendum has been a fight between naive optimism, and grumpy pessimism; between poetry and prose. I've finally remembered what it reminds me of:
Should we “camp out” or sleep at inns? George and I were for camping out. We said it would be so wild and free, so patriarchal like.
Slowly the golden memory of the dead sun fades from the hearts of the cold, sad clouds. Silent, like sorrowing children, the birds have ceased their song, and only the moorhen’s plaintive cry and the harsh croak of the corncrake stirs the awed hush around the couch of waters, where the dying day breathes out her last.
From the dim woods on either bank, Night’s ghostly army, the grey shadows, creep out with noiseless tread to chase away the lingering rear-guard of the light, and pass, with noiseless, unseen feet, above the waving river-grass, and through the sighing rushes; and Night, upon her sombre throne, folds her black wings above the darkening world, and, from her phantom palace, lit by the pale stars, reigns in stillness.
Then we run our little boat into some quiet nook, and the tent is pitched, and the frugal supper cooked and eaten. Then the big pipes are filled and lighted, and the pleasant chat goes round in musical undertone; while, in the pauses of our talk, the river, playing round the boat, prattles strange old tales and secrets, sings low the old child’s song that it has sung so many thousand years—will sing so many thousand years to come, before its voice grows harsh and old—a song that we, who have learnt to love its changing face, who have so often nestled on its yielding bosom, think, somehow, we understand, though we could not tell you in mere words the story that we listen to.
And we sit there, by its margin, while the moon, who loves it too, stoops down to kiss it with a sister’s kiss, and throws her silver arms around it clingingly; and we watch it as it flows, ever singing, ever whispering, out to meet its king, the sea—till our voices die away in silence, and the pipes go out—till we, common-place, everyday young men enough, feel strangely full of thoughts, half sad, half sweet, and do not care or want to speak—till we laugh, and, rising, knock the ashes from our burnt-out pipes, and say “Good-night,”and, lulled by the lapping water and the rustling trees, we fall asleep beneath the great, still stars, and dream that the world is young again—young and sweet as she used to be ere the centuries of fret and care had furrowed her fair face, ere her children’s sins and follies had made old her loving heart—sweet as she was in those bygone days when, a new-made mother, she nursed us, her children, upon her own deep breast—ere the wiles of painted civilization had lured us away from her fond arms, and the poisoned sneers of artificiality had made us ashamed of the simple life we led with her, and the simple, stately home where mankind was born so many thousands years ago.
Harris said: 
“How about when it rained?”
I do hope Harris wins on Thursday.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

You're like Hitler!

This may come as a bit of a shock, but I don't agree with Owen Jones. Recovered? Right. He's written an article about David Cameron's reported (but private) remarks to an EU Summit on the growing crisis in Ukraine.
"We run the risk of repeating the mistakes made in Munich in '38. We cannot know what will happen next," Cameron was reported as saying. "This time we cannot meet Putin's demands. He has already taken Crimea and we cannot allow him to take the whole country."
Jones sees this as nothing more or less than inflammatory rhetoric:
Let’s resist the Hitler comparisons, which intend simply to shut down any reasoned discussion, to demonise all those who are not hawks, and to ratchet up tension.
But here's the thing: the comparison between Putin's foreign policy and Hitler's up to 1938 is a perfectly good one. In fact, the central rhetorical underpinning of Putin's expansionism is almost uncannily reminiscent of pre-war Hitlerite Germany. In both cases, they exploit non-existent outrages and humiliations visited against minority ethnic groups (German or Russian) within multi-ethnic border states, and demand initially that regions within those countries be 'returned' to the father/motherland.

This was the modus operandi in the Sudetenland in 1938, where local ethnic Germans acted as proxies for the true guiding force in Berlin. Hitler created an international incident over the treatment of the Sud-Deutsch that led to the partial annexation of Czechoslovakia as a precursor to a full-blown invasion the following year.

Hitler also employed this technique against Poland, with the treatment of ethnic Germans in the Danzig corridor being central to the propaganda build-up to the invasion of Poland. Agents provocateurs were used, and local proxies staged acts of terrorism in support of Nazi foreign policy.

Now look at how Putin has managed his regional expansionism: he has concentrated on the "abuses" suffered by ethnic Russians in Eastern Ukraine; he cited the same issue as a reason for the invasion of Georgia in 2008; he has raised the same concern in Estonia. Hitler and Putin are unambiguously playing the same card.

They're playing it, essentially, for the same reasons too: the absorbtion of neighbouring states into a greater German Reich, or a reborn Soviet Union. It's an accurate comparison, and a fairly enlightening one as well.

Should it be made though? Isn't Hitler so uniquely evil that he defies comparison? As a side note, isn't especially unfair to compare a Russian leader to Hitler "after all, the Soviet Union was absolutely instrumental in the defeat of Nazism, suffering well over 20 million fatalities. In the case of Russia, comparisons to Hitler could hardly be more insulting." Taking this latter point first, no it isn't. Not only were there fairly obvious points of comparison between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, but they began the Second World War as allies, and invaded Poland together, shaking hands over the ruins.

More broadly, there is a reasonable argument to be made that Hitler makes a poor comparitor: the evil of his regime overpowers more or less any comparison you could make. It's also often a thinly veiled attack on the propriety of whatever is being compared: "you know who else...". When, however, the comparison is being made with a short autocrat who manipulated the democratic process to get into power, and then abused it to stay there; and who is cynically manipulating ethnic tensions in neighbouring states in order to foment sufficient unrest to justify an invasion: then I think the comparison is just fair enough.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

From bad to worse

Richard Dawkins, when not talking about evolutionary biology, is a bit of a tit. The particular tittish thing he has just done is write the following tweet:
Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think.
He was doing this, apparently, to illustrate logical thinking. Which was pretty straightforwardly dumb of him for a start: if you want an argument about the application of cool reason, don't illustrate it with rape analogies. Equally, for the love of God, don't start calling some types of rape 'mild' because that really is both insensitive and ignorant.

Tom Chivers writes a fairly good piece here on why the example should never have been used. But he also makes the claim that it's impossible to determine whether one rape is 'worse' than another unless you have yourself been raped:

...those of us who have never been raped telling those who have which ones are worse, with no reference to anything other than our own assumptions, is insensitive at best and utterly crass and devoid of empathy at worst.
I'm not sure that I'm a fan of that approach. Tom wrote an excellent piece on Ebola the day before. But who is he who has never had Ebola to tell people who have how bad it is, with no reference to anything but his own assumptions, so to speak? Well, he's someone who's researched the topic, presumably read survivors' testimony, has awareness of the general topic of illness etc. In other words, he's an educated observer. If people can't make value judgements without having physically experienced the subject then the scope of discourse gets pretty limited.


In any event, when discussing the relative severity of criminal actions, we actually do have a fairly objective assistant: the law. All rapes are serious. Some have aggravating factors that make them more serious. Some have mitigating factors that make them less serious (although the only specified mitigating factor is that the "Victim engaged in consensual sexual activity with the offender on the same occasion and immediately before the offence" - which reads to me as being more about the perpetrator's belief in consent than anything else). But that again is almost what Dawkins was saying - the fact that some offences are more serious than others does not make those others trivial.

Where he went wrong, of course, was in talking about "mild date rapes", because there really are no such things. But then that's because he's a tit.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Tories, Tariffs and Trade

There's an interesting piece by Phil Collins in the Times today about the historic fault line running through the Conservative party. This is identified as those who seek an "open" policy against those who want a "closed" policy, as defined by Tony Blair in his recent speech at Blenheim Palace. Collins identifies three issues over which the Tories have split:
In 1846 the Conservative party split over whether it should allow corn to be traded freely or whether the merchants should be protected. The market-minded liberals, those in favour of opening up to the world, left the party.
The same fissure opened again when Joseph Chamberlain resigned from Balfour’s government in 1903 to campaign for preferential tariffs for the colonies. He was opposed by, among others, Charles Thomson Ritchie, the chancellor, who put the Adam Smith-inspired case for free trade...
The argument over Europe reared up again in the late 1980s when Geoffrey Howe, with the worst famous speech on record, began the process that ended in the political slaughter of Mrs Thatcher. The uncivil argument carries on to this day. It has to, because there can be no reconciliation between those who wish to be open and those who wish to be closed.
I thought I'd written about this before, but if I have I can't find it (although I did leave a comment on Sunny's old site on exactly this point) - the Tories have split 3 times on the issue of free trade vs protectionism. Corn Laws; Imperial Preference; and Europe. On each occasion, after splitting the party, the protectionists lost the argument and either left the party or changed their views.

I find it odd, therefore, that both Collins and Blair, when drawing up the line of battle, seem to get the protagonists mixed up. In the current Tory split, it is quite clearly the pro-Europeans who are following the protectionist standard. Indeed, the parallel with Imperial Preference is pretty stark - both were preferential trade areas, supported by external trade barriers. Both were designed partly to shore up political association and partly to defend high cost economies from low cost competitors. In abandoning the remnants of Imperial Preference (the Commonwealth Trade Area) for the EEC, the Tories were switching the form in which they supported protectionism, rather than changing their view on it.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Much ado about chucking

Stuart Broad has got himself into a bit of trouble, by commenting on a picture of Saeed Ajmal tweeted by Michael Vaughan. Vaughan tweeted "you are allowed 15 degrees of flex in delivery swing... #justsaying", and attached a blurry picture of Ajmal in mid-delivery. This is what that picture looks like:


Broad replied, commenting that it had to be a fake picture, and later said that “Bowlers can bowl very differently in a lab while being tested compared to needing wickets in the middle”. Ajmal has, of course, had his action tested before by the ICC and was found to be within the permitted 15 degrees of flex allowed (anything less than this is invisible to the naked eye). It's virtually impossible for a spectator to analyse a bowler's action in real time (and I can't remember the last time the cameras did an analysis in slow-mo of one of the more controversial spinners). It doesn't help, of course, that they also tend to wear baggy long-sleeved shirts, although anyone not wearing one in county cricket in May probably comes from a latitude significantly to the north of Faisalabad. But on gut feel, Ajmal is one of those that doesn't quite feel right. To see why, keep the picture above in mind when looking at a picture of his release point:


That arm looks pretty straight to the naked eye and (even given the angle from which the top photo was taken) is definitely more than a 15 degree variation from the one above. This isn't, incidentally, to say that Ajmal is chucking - as I said above, it basically takes work in a laboratory to determine the actual degree of flex. It's just that it looks as though he is to the naked eye.

But then, it looked like Murali was chucking to the naked eye, and he definitely wasn't. I saw him bowl for Channel 4 in a full arm cast, and it still looked like he threw it. Murali had double-jointed wrists and a permanently bent arm - the combination made it look like a throw even though it wasn't. Murali's example, however, has caused a proliferation of unorthodox actions.

Shane Shillingford
 
Johann Botha
 
Sachithra Senanayake
 
Sunil Narine
 
Some of these have been called for it (Shillingford had his quicker ball banned by the ICC, Botha his doosra), some haven't (Senanayake had his action cleared back in 2011, although Aggers clearly disagrees...). Does any of it matter? Doesn't it just add to cricket's rich tapestry? Weeelll...
 
Part of me wants to agree: all the bowlers listed are exciting and skillful, and their bowling makes cricket more interesting. On the other hand, if we're going to ignore it when spinners chuck it, why can't pacemen just stand at the crease and hurl it at that batsman like a pitcher? I've played against bowlers in club cricket who blatantly threw it, and it gives them a heck of an advantage. For spinners it makes it much harder to detect which way the ball is turning; for quicks, the ball is that much quicker through the air than you're expecting.
 
One thing that is perhaps a little odd is that the people who were so exercised when Stuart Broad didn't walk for a nick to the keeper (which isn't against any law of the game) aren't equally exercised by the possible breaking of law 24(3) which says that a ball is only fairly delivered if:
once the bowler’s arm has reached the level of the shoulder in the delivery swing, the elbow joint is not straightened partially or completely from that point until the ball has left the hand.
UPDATE: To nobody's great surprise, Senanayake has been referred to the ICC for having a dodgy action. He can then be cleared in a lab, and return to action, pleasing and convincing nobody either way...

Peccaverunt

There's a very heartfelt article in today's Times by Matthew Syed on the atrocity on the steps of the high court in Lahore. A pregnant woman was battered to death, by her own family, in the midst of a large crowd (including scores of policemen and lawyers) who did nothing to help or to intervene. Her "crime" was to have married a man of whom her father disapproved. Chances of a successful prosecution of anyone for the lynching must be pretty small. Syed, who is half Pakistani himself, sees only one way for this sort of barbarism to be countered - in Pakistan or in the UK
You cannot win against this kind of barbarism by being nice. You can’t win by beating a strategic retreat, as Sotheby’s plans to do by withdrawing nudes from arts sales because they are terrified of offending Middle Eastern clients. Fundamentalism is too fierce, too implacable, it takes too deep a hold on those who are infected by it, to reach any kind of compromise. Trying to find an accommodation with fanaticism is like trying to cuddle a virus.
This is not a new problem. 150 years ago, in a newly conquered province of the Raj (remembered now, if at all, principally for a Latin pun in Punch magazine) the British Governor General Sir Charles Napier was tasked with imposing law and order on a society with an entirely alien culture and value system. As his biographer (and brother) Sir William Napier recorded in his history of Scinde:
Whenever a woman was guilty of infidelity, or even suspected - and that suspicion was excited by trifles, and often pretended from interested views - one man would hold her up by the hair while another hewed her piecemeal with a sword. To kill women on any pretext was a right assumed by every Beloochee [i.e. Baloch], and they could not understand why they were being disbarred.
While remembering to keep in mind the inevitable problems of orientalism and so on (in other words, that this is a very partial history from a particular source), the attitudes identified should not be terribly surprising - their residues remain in modern Pakistan and elsewhere. I suspect that the general's response would not be considered acceptable today:
A man had been condemned for murdering his wife; his chief sued the general for pardon. "No! I will hang him." "What! You will hang a man only for killing his wife!" "Yes; she had done no wrong." "Wrong! No! But he was angry, why should he not kill her?" "Well I am angry; why should I not kill him?" This conviction of their right to murder women was so strong and their belief in fatalism so firm, that many executions took place ere the practice could even be checked; but finding the general as resolute to hang as they were to murder, the tendency after a time abated, and to use his significant phrase "the gallows began to overbalance Mahomet and predestination."
There may be a lesson here for us (though not that the answer is the return of capital punishment). It is not just that "culture" is not an excuse for murder; it is actually an exacerbating factor. Courts and prosecutors need to be more severe on cultural or "honour" killings than they are on "normal" murders, precisely because while "ordinary" murderers do not commit their crimes under the delusion that it is an acceptable (indeed desirable) thing to do, "honour" murderers do.

Where we are faced with cultural behaviours that are drastically contrary to our own cultural values (and these sadly mostly relate to the treatment of women, from "honour" killings to FGM) the state needs to act almost disproportionately heavily. The message needs to be unmissably clear that this is not how we do things here. Charles Napier is probably more famous for his actions against suttee (although in a predominantly Muslim state that would have been less prevalent than elsewhere in India):
He also put down the practice of suttees, which however was rare in Scinde, by a process entirely characteristic. For judging the real cause of these immolations to be the profit derived by the priests, and hearing of an intended burning, he made it known that he would stop the sacrifice. The priests said it was a religious rite which must not be meddled with - that all nations had customs which should be respected and this was a very sacred one. The general, affecting to be struck with this argument replied, "Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pyre. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs!" No suttee took place then or afterwards.
What Napier did was, obviously, imperialism: the imposition of British laws and cultural values on a non-British state. But to follow a similar trajectory in the UK against similar attitudes towards women would be almost the opposite of imperialism: it would be the fierce and principled support of a culture and a way of life that people come here to seek, and that people already here have every right to expect to be defended.

Friday, May 02, 2014

The N word

Somewhere high up on my bookshelves I have three copies of the same book. This is what happens when you merge libraries with your wife, and then get several boxes more from her grandmother. Each copy has a different title. The oldest one (which came in from the grandmother) is called Ten Little Niggers; then there's a US copy called Ten Little Indians; and then there's my old copy from the 80s called And Then There Were None. It's a pretty good book actually, though like all Christies the attraction wears off slightly when you know who did it.

Does the above paragraph make me a racist? I don't think so, although things might be different if I displayed the oldest copy prominently in my window, or made loud harrumphing noises about how it was better in the old days before all this political correct nonsense came along. The reason I ask is (obviously) because of the brouhaha over Jeremy Clarkson's apparent mumblings of a playground jingle of equivalent antiquity - the eenie, meenie, miney, mo one.

It might be worth going on a small diversion here. The current 'anti-Clarkson' narrative is that though he initially denied saying it, he's now admitted to mumbling it, which is just as bad. As Dan Hodges says:
But yesterday he explained that he had, in fact, tried to “mumble” the word. Then, to his horror, when reviewing copies of the unbroadcast footage, he found “it did appear I had actually used the word I was trying to obscure”. Or, to put it another way, the reason it appeared he’d used that word was because he had indeed used it.
'Putting it another way' in this context apparently meaning 'to say something completely different', because what Clarkson has actually said is that he didn't say the word: he mumbled under his breath instead of saying the word. In the note he wrote to the producer he said:
'I didn't use the N-word here but I've just listened through my headphones and it sounds like I did. Is there another take that we could use?'
"This word is so bad that I didn't use it" seems to me like a different story to "Saying nigger is just fine, says racist bigot". Anyway, I'm not sure that this really amounts to anything very much more than that the left don't like Jeremy Clarkson, and will cheerfully grab at any stick to hit him with.

More interesting (slightly) is the argument between Dan and Frank Fisher on Twitter, a medium renowned for its appropriateness for developing complex arguments. Dan's line is that the simple use of the word 'nigger' is itself intrinsically racist. That has the benefit of clarity at least, and used as an epithet the word is unquestionably offensive. Frank's point in response is that whether or not a word is racist depends on the context in which it is used, and the intention for which it is used.

The standard line trotted out here is along the lines of "rappers say nigger all the time; how can it be racist if black people say it?" I am, to say the least, unconvinced by this line of argument (although in fairness, Fisher's point is not actually if they can say it, why not me? but rather, does singing their lyrics make me racist? which is surely a harder question). But it does highlight a hole in the iron 'use = racism' argument. Can it be racist to use the word when discussing whether old books should be edited to reflect modern values? Surely it can't, or you end up in a Kafka-esque situation of not being able to say the word you think should or shouldn't be changed (as I'm sure you know, a major character in Huckleberry Finn is called Nigger Jim and I am, for example, pretty damn sure that Tom Chivers isn't a racist.

So, if it can be acceptable in some circumstances for even a white person to say nigger (including, I hope, in discussing the topic at all, otherwise I'm in trouble myself), is it acceptable to recite an old playground rhyme that includes it? Autre temps, autre mouers after all, and the fact that my grandmother went into shops to ask for bootlaces in nigger brown didn't make her a racist (she was, incidentally, quite definitely racist, but it wasn't the bootlaces that made it so). Well, no I don't think that it is. There may be some limited circumstances where using the word is effectively unavoidable, but school-age doggerel isn't one of them (the version I used said tigger anyway).

Of course, the funny thing here is that despite Dan's hyperventilation, Clarkson clearly agrees with this - that's why he didn't say the word, and when it sounded as if he had he made sure another shot was used. Dan's written a column despairing over the normalisation of casual racism when the story is actually that a popular right-wing broadcaster didn't say the word in question, but has grovelled because a discarded shot sounds almost as if he did. This is more a David Howard story (forced to resign for saying niggardly) than a Ron Atkinson one.

Friday, April 11, 2014

What do they know of culture...?

There's a rather joyous line in Phillip Collins's Times column this morning, that rather wonderfully eviscerates Michael Fucking Rosen's even more than usually stupid and pompous 'open letter' to Sajid Javid.
How can a man who has spent his life in banking, asks Mr Rosen, begin to understand poetry? I wonder if Mr Rosen is acquainted with the work of the employee of Lloyd’s, Mr TS Eliot.
But then, pitch defiles and even a brief career in banking can entirely destroy any chances of a career in the arts. Just ask PG Wodehouse...